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Hosanna

Today, as I and the retreatants with whom I have spend these last few days prepare to bring our retreat experience to a close, we celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The crowds praise him and lay palms at his feet, still thinking he has come to establish a kingdom here on earth. These same crowds will soon be crying, “Crucify Him!”

Today, however (with apologies to those of you who are not fans of Jesus Christ Superstar), they sing out their Hosannas:

Blessings on this Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion!

As many of you konw, there was a time during the years I practiced Buddhism that I was ordained a Tibetan Buddhist nun. I took the vows of a nun thinking it would be an aid to my practice. (There is in the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism – at least as I encountered it – a bias toward the monastic life for those who are serious Buddhist practitioners.)

I remained a nun for little more than a year. What I discovered was that I was spending so much energy trying to be a good nun – working to keep purely the various vows I took – that I felt my being a nun was actually hindering my practice rather than helping it.

I thought of that experience when I came across something Frederick Buechner wrote:

We try so hard as Christians. We think such long thoughts, manipulate such long words, and both listen to and preach such long sermons. Each one of us somewhere, somehow, has known, if only for a moment or so, something of what it is to feel the shattering love of God, and once that has happened, we can never rest easy again for trying somehow to set that love forth not only in words, myriads of words, but in our lives themselves.

We try so hard to be good Christians, just as I tried so hard to be a Buddhist nun.

Yet all we really need to do is to let ourselves “feel the shattering love of God.” From my own experience, I know that Buechner is absolutely right. Experiencing that love changes everything, doing something to us that long thoughts, long words and long sermons never can and never will. The thoughts, the words, the ideas, may open us to experience that love, but themselves are not substitute.

It is the love that changes everything.

Diane Roth, who is an associate pastor of one of the Lutheran churches in the Twin Cities (Woodlake Lutheran), wrote a blog post recently that began with the confession that although she loves both poetry and prayer, she doesn’t feel that she is particularly good at either one. Nonetheless, emulating some of her favorite poets, many of whose poems really are prayers (Mary Oliver and Denise Levertov are the examples she gave), she said she had been writing occasional “haiku prayers” over the last year or so. This activity prompted her to reflect on what poetry and prayer might have in common.

She suggested three ways the two are similar. The first is that both “have a necessary honesty.” A good poem, Roth suggested, “is, above all, honest. It doesn’t pull punches. It tells the truth. In fact, poetry is one way of getting deeper into truth, an expression of joy or lament or love that strips off artifice and reveals the depths of pain and hope.”

Prayer, of course, is the same. When I read her post, I was reminded of something John Powell, S.J., wrote:

Speaking to God honestly is the beginning of prayer; it locates a person before God… In speaking to God we must reveal our true and naked selves. We must tell him the truth of ourselves. We must tell him the truth of our thoughts, desires and feelings, whatever they may be. They may not be what I would like them to be, but they are not right or wrong, true or false. They are me.

Second, Roth suggested that prayer and poetry are both elliptical, by which she means that both “leave some things unsaid.” She elaborates,

Poems make you read between the lines. They do not say everything. Prayers do too, but in a different way, and perhaps for other reasons. Prayers a elliptical, because it is impossible to say all that is on our hearts. The apostle Paul has it right, “We do not know how to pray as we ought,” and so prayers will always leave some things unsaid. And yet, not saying everything, a poem or a prayer somehow becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Each of her first two points is true and important in its own right. But perhaps the most important commonality she reminds us of is that “you don’t have to be good at it.”

I recalled when I read her post a conversation I had with my then spiritual director many years ago. I was having trouble expressing a deep feeling and I bemoaned, that if I were a poet I could express the depth of what I was a feeling in a poem. “What stops you from doing it?” Of course it was my feeling that it wouldn’t be good enough. Good enough for what, he chided me. Just do it, he encouraged me. And so I did. It wasn’t a great work of art. No one other than me and God ever read it. But that was just fine; the poem served its purpose.

Likewise with prayer. Directees or retreatants or others I counsel sometimes worry about whether they are praying “right.” There is no right; there is just you and God in honest encounter.

I was reminded when I read Roth’s post of Mary Oliver’s poem Praying, which I leave you with:

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

This morning we had a little good-bye party in the law school Atrium for Pete, the primary law school security guard, who is retiring after having served in the University for 30 years, the last 10 of which have been spent at the law school. Every day since I started teaching here, no matter how early I arrive (and I tend to arrive early) Pete has been there at his station.

Rob Vischer, our dean, offered some brief comments after we gave Pete some gifts and before we dove into the cake. Rob observed that while all schools have security stations that are exactly that – a station that provides some security for the community – the security station manned by Pete served more like a front porch. A place to come sit (or at least stand) a while. Pete always took time to greet students and took a keen interest in how they were doing. Pete was, Rob suggested, as much teacher as security guard in the caring he modeled for students, faculty and staff alike. He shared an e-mail from an alum who had graduated almost a decade ago (an alum, Rob joked, who hadn’t even written when Rob became dean, but who wrote as soon as word of Pete’s impending retirement spread), talking about how much Pete’s presence added to his law school experience.

As I listened to Rob, I thought of all the Pete’s in various organizations, the people who are part of the glue that holds entities together. People who are not high enough on the chain of command, or “important” enough by hierarchical standards to be recognized for the work they are doing – until they are ready to retire. At that point, as we become conscious of their impending absence, we acknowledge directly, perhaps for the first time, how much they mean to us, the hole their departure will leave.

Why wait until those people are ready to retire to recognize them and express gratitude for who they are and all they contribute?

Who are the Pete’s in your school, your workplace, your church, or the other organizations of which you are a part? Have you thanked them lately? Or done anything to let them know you see them and appreciate them?

Note: I will take off immediately after teaching my two classes this morning to drive to the Jesuit Retreat House in OshKosh, where I will be presenting an weekend Ignatian preached retreat. I ask you to keep me and the retreatants in your prayers.

Yesterday was the fifth weekly gathering of the Lent Retreat in Daily Living I am offering this year at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. Our retreat this year is a truncated version of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Easter being as late as it is makes the retreat particularly challenging for our students, who are trying to juggle multiple events during these last couple of weeks of classes, as well as starting to prepare for exams.

During this past week, participants prayed with events in the life of Jesus, part of Week 2 of the Spiritual Exercises. After the participants spent time sharing in small groups their prayer experience during this past week, we talked about some of the difficulty people sometimes have in praying with events about which they are so familiar. There is a tendency to approach some of the events of Jesus’ life with the attitude of “heard that already…already know what that is about.” My encouragement was to try to let go that sense, to try to engage in Ignatian Contemplation with less focus on what the Gospel records and more on what God may want to reveal to me about this episode.

I then offered a reflection on the Beatitudes, which will be the subject of the participants’ prayer this coming week. Ignatian spirituality is fundamentally concerned with our lives as disciples of Christ and the Beatitudes help us flesh out what discipleship means. Jesus Christ himself lived the Beatitudes – indeed, he is the perfect embodiment of them – and thus they offer a pretty full statement of what it means to follow Christ, to live as Christ did in the world. I shared some thoughts on each of the Beatitudes as an entry into their prayer for the upcoming week.

You can listen to the talk I gave at our gathering here or stream it from the icon below. The podcast runs for 33.55. You can access the prayer material for this week here.


I AM

In today’s Gospel from John, the Pharisees ask Jesus, “Who are you?”

How would you respond to that question? In a society that often seems obsessed by credentials, many tend to respond with what they do professionally (“I’m a law professor”) or where they hail from (“I’m a New Yorker”) or their pedigree (“I’m the eldest daughter of a NYC police officer”) or what school they went to (“I’m a graduate of NYU Law School.”)

As I read this Gospel passage again this morning, I remembered a sermon in which a priest talked about how we define our worth as persons. Referring to our obsession with credentials, he observed that many people have the tendency to look outside themselves to find their worth and their definition of themselves. 

But when the Pharisees ask Jesus who he is – essentially asking him, what are you credentials – his response is simply “I Am.”  Not “I am a carpenter” or “I am a teacher” or “I’m from Nazareth” or “I’m someone who elders listened to when I was twelve years old.” Just “I Am.” That’s all Jesus felt he had to say. Nothing external required. 

And nothing external is required for us: I am created and held continuously and lovingly by God.  Period.  I need nothing else, nothing external, to define me or to give me value.  I need not do or produce anything to give me worth.    

Believing that – not in our head but in the depths of our being – is one of the basic struggles we have as human beings.  Jesus got it.  He knew exactly who he was. 

Do you?

I’m note exactly a fan of Russell Crowe, but having read so many divergent views of Noah, Dave and I went to see it last night. (Warning: if you plan to see the movie and don’t want to hear any of what happens in it, stop reading.)

There is always a danger seeing a film “based on” a story we are familiar with. Inevitably the film will convey something or other that seems to us inconsistent with the story as we know it. There is a particular danger with films based on the Bible, as divergence from the text will seem to some as offensive or sacrilegious.

I confess I could have lived without the giants who lumbered around and helped Noah and his family build the ark. (And I couldn’t figure out what good those giants actually did given how many years it appeared to take the build it – at least several years judging by the growth of Noah’s sons and future daughter-in-law.) And, as I already said, Russell Crowe doesn’t do a whole lot for me. But I did find the film worth seeing.

I think when we imagine God telling people like Noah what he wanted them to do, we imagine God giving the equivalent of a written set of complete instructions with every “i” dotted and “t” crossed. In this movie, Noah has a dream of being underwater, of death and destruction, and he sought out his grandfather Methuselah to help him understand what God was calling him to.

That portrayal, I think is more consistent with the way God most often speaks to us – in ways that are far less clear than a fully developed blueprint. A dream, an intuition, something someone says, something that arises in prayer – ways that require discernment and prayer to understand more fully what God is calling us to. That invite us to speak with a spritual director, a wise elder like Methuselah, or a friend, as we discern.

The movie also reminds us that our discernment can be clouded and we don’t always fully understand what God may be asking. One of the things in the movie that really struck me was Noah and his family hearing the sounds of people screaming in terror as the waters rose. I confess that is not something that was ever in my vision when I imagined that scene. But of course people in a wooden ark that was certainly not soundproof would hear the cries of people outside as the waters rose. Noah’s wife and sons plead with him: Certainly there is room on the ark; shouldn’t we try to save some of these people? No, says Noah. Is that what God wanted? For everyone but Noah and his family to perish? Or was God testing Noah’s mercy?

A similar scene occurs later in the movie. Noah has become convinced that God wants the human race to completely die out. So when his son Shem’s wife, who he thought was barren, is with child, Noah swears that if it is boy, the boy will be the last human to live, but if it is a girl, he will kill it so that there may be no more breeding of humans. He is unmoved by the pleas of his wife, son and daughter-in-law and insists he will kill a girl as soon as she is born. However, when he finally sees his twin granddaughters he cannot bring himself to kill them. Is he disobeying God’s will by refusing to kill them? Or, as the twins mother suggests, was he exercising the mercy God wanted him to choose?

The point is not how Noah should have answered those questions – that is between him and God. But it is a good reminder of our need to carefully discern – and to have the humility to recognize that our discernment may be faulty.

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